“And the prospect of the Encyclopedia Galactica itself—what a monumental project! Imagine the reaction when the public learns that the Galactic Library is involved with such an undertaking designed to highlight the splendor of our civilization—our glorious history, our brilliant achievements, our magnificent cultures. And to think that I, Chief Librarian Tryma Acarnio, is responsible for making sure that this great Project gets its start.”
Acarnio gazed intently into the crystal sphere, lost in reverie.
~ Isaac Asimov’s Forward, The Foundation (1993)
Asimov was a prolific writer. Wikipedia entry against his name will tell you that the man wrote or edited more than 500 books and composed an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. If words imply information, surely his writings must offer a server worth of information. And somewhere in those words are his many visions of humanity’s future.
Ironically, for someone who anticipated some of our information systems in his writings, Asimov died a victim of lack of information in 1992. Back in the 1980s, if information about HIV was easily and readily available, he may not have contracted the virus from blood transfusion during a bypass operation in 1983.
In one of Asimov’s futures, creation of Encyclopedia Galactica seems like a conceited exercise driven by ego. In reality, we humans ended up creating an all-encompassing encyclopaedia of everything, the Internet, inadvertently, out of our ability and need to crunch big numbers, need to handle data, need to process and create information, and a need to dispense it. Given similar needs, Asimov in a way did conceive something akin to the Internet in his famous story The Last Question.
In this story, one of his most curious literary creations, Multivac, evolves alongside man as they together try to find an answer to the question: can entropy be reversed? Surprisingly, as time passes, Multivac shrinks in size even as its computation power increases exponentially. It goes down to “personal” size and then to a two-inch cube that is connected through “hyperspace with the great Galactic AC that served all mankind”. Asimov conceived this story in around 1955, just when Alan Turing was talking along similar lines based on his work with computing machines. Moore’s Law, that clearly relates computational power and integrated circuit size, was formulated only in the 1970s.
Multivac appears in a number of other Asimov stories too and it almost always appears like an oracle. Or rather an oracle that does not beat around the bush and answers directly. You ask a question, you get an answer. Unlike the de-centralised structure of most of the Internet today, Asimov almost always thought of Multivac as a centralised entity that may be controlled, most often by the government.
In 2002, a survey carried out by the Nobel Institute on 100 of the world’s best authors from 54 countries led to Don Quixote being declared the best book of all time. Newspapers trumpeted the news. But how does one arrive at the “best book of all time”? A year later, Salman Rushdie, one of the writers who took part in the survey, claimed the writers who took part in the survey were asked to list, in no particular order, 10 of their favourite books, then this list was fed into a computer. In the end, the computer declared Don Quixote to be the greatest and most meaningful book of all time. Only decades ago, the fact that a machine was deciding matters of art may have raised some eyebrows and maybe given rise to some interesting critique of the methodology. But not a whisper was heard.
Compare this to the plot of Asimov’s 1955 story Franchise and the debut of Multivac. The story is about the US election in 2008. The election was a simple affair. Computer selected a man, a representative of the electorate, and asked him a few questions. Based on this one man’s answers, a President was elected. With all that computational power at hand, it probably was not hard for Asimov to guess which route humanity will take. At the start of this story, the protagonist is weary of the computer-driven election process but by the time the process is over, and after he has exercised his vote, he feels: “In this imperfect world, the sovereign citizens of the first and greatest Electronic Democracy had, through Norman Muller (through him!) exercised once again its free, untrammeled franchise.”
Wasn’t fate of past empires, too, sealed by the decisions of a select few? Marx would probably agree, even as he would ask Asimov to explore the idea a bit more.
In Asimov’s The Dead Past (1956), the protagonist discovers that the government is deliberately keeping people from looking into the past, even though it has had the technology to do so for years. The government manages to keep this technology to itself, not by denying the existence of such technology but by building a bureaucracy around it, and by effectively managing the information about it. It publishes bogus journal articles about ancient history that would excite no special interest from the general public. It hides the time-viewing machine right under the nose of the people by telling them that the viewer is working, always busy seeing the dead past of some ancient period. The protagonists manage to get past the government blockade and even build a portable time-viewer. However, in an anti-climax, they realise that the government was not wrong: once the time-viewer is out for public consumption, most people will only be interested in the mundane and the illicit. They realise that the government was only trying to protect the world and that their action of unravelling the truth has unbalanced the world and pushed it towards an uncertain future.
Invert this story, twist it a bit and you can see a prophecy about Wiki-Leaks and questions it opened up. Information may or may not be liberation but control of information is certainly power. Were not libraries burnt during the crusades for power?
A good science fiction writer may or may not be right about his vision, but like a good fortune-teller he will certainly read your past, your fears and worries, and then he will conjure an appropriate future, one that is almost always identifiable. We did read about these cool gizmos connected to hyperspace, but who would have written that people would be hooked on these pad-thingies? Who would have written that mobile devices would cause men to have bad dreams about the health of their testes? Who would have written that these devices and their support towers would proliferate even before any proper health study was done on their usage? Who would have claimed that even though writers of future will have better research tools and more time at hand, yet purely out of economic reasons, the age of prolific writers would be long over? A fortune-teller does not need to be perfect. Approximations are enough. That is the beauty of science fiction writing, the best of it only needs to get the past right.
To summon visions of future, Asimov too relied on the past. It is almost like Asimov’s man will only perform actions that he has already performed in the past. His man is almost an automaton. The inputs and outputs are always predictable. Only the plot, the simulation within which this automaton runs, offers various kinds of challenges with its simple twists and turns. It is past broken down into a simple edible recipe with a lot of dressing of delicious jargon. And sometimes with this dish, comes a fortune cookie, a message, a piece of information about the future.
Vinayak Razdan works with a start-up as a social games developer/designer